NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Four New Orleans tour guides asked a federal judge Thursday to bar the city from enforcing requirements that they pass a history exam, drug test and criminal background check to be licensed. U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan didn't immediately rule after hearing arguments in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the guides who claim the rules violate their free speech rights.
"Guiding tours is a constitutionally protected form of expressive activity," said plaintiffs' attorney Matthew Miller of the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm that has challenged similar licensing requirements in Philadelphia and Washington.
City attorney Sharonda Williams asked Morgan to dismiss the suit, arguing the regulations are public safety measures that also protect the city's tourism trade.
"It's the city's position that we're regulating business and conduct, not speech," Williams said.
Tour guides only have to take the history test once, but they must submit a urine sample for a drug test and get their fingerprints taken for an FBI background check every two years to renew their license. Unlicensed tour guides can be punished with fines of $300 per infraction and up to five months in jail.
Some of the licensing requirements aren't new, but the plaintiffs say Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration only recently started enforcing them, by breaking up tours led by guides whose licenses had expired and issuing warning to the guides.
Morgan pressed Williams to explain why the city created the requirements, asking if they stemmed from "free-floating anxiety about what might happen."
Williams couldn't cite any instances in which a tour guide physically harmed a customer but said "a lot of tourists come here and feel like they've been scammed" by unqualified guides.
Miller said he knows of only six cities, including New Orleans, that require tour guides to be licensed. The city doesn't have a compelling interest in ensuring that guides are disseminating historically accurate information, he argued. "New Orleans has provided no evidence that the law is narrowly tailored," he said.
Candance Kagan, one of the plaintiffs, said she has continued giving tours in the city's French Quarter even though she refuses to comply with the regulations and renew her license.
"It's a risk I'm willing to take because the laws make no sense," Kagan said after the hearing. Others have elected to quit, she said. "So it has hurt the nonprofits terribly because they no longer have enough tour guides," Kagan added.